Curvemeister 2 is Curves on Steroids
When I introduced the Earthbound Light Solution for Curves (and other goodies) in Photoshop Elements just over a year ago, I also wrote briefly about a nice plug-in known as Curvemeister that I've been meaning to take a more detailed look at ever since. By now, Curvemeister is up to version 2.1. Mike Russell, the program's author has indeed been busy, and the thoughtful features found throughout the program are the obvious result.
As the title of this article says, Curvemeister is Curves on steroids. The main Curvemeister Curves window shows a combination histogram and curves display that can be configured to show any one channel or be split into displays for all channels simultaneously. It can be freely toggled between RGB, wide-gamut CMYK, Lab, and HSB (Hue-Saturation-Brightness) color models at any point while working on a curve so you can use whichever seems best for the task at hand. And it works the same in Photoshop Elements as it does in the full version of Photoshop. Sure would be nice if Adobe would take a cue from Curvemeister in this regard, now wouldn't it?
While in use, the new version of Curvemeister also temporarily replaces the regular Photoshop image window with its own rendition of the image being worked on. Surrounding the image itself are a number of new Curvemeister controls, some of which we will look at in this review.
The Curvemeister Wizard
In addition to the main Curvemeister windows mentioned so far, there is also the optional Curvemeister Wizard. Although it has not changed significantly from earlier versions of Curvemeister, this only means Mike Russell did a good job of designing it in the first place.
And for all the great new features that were added to this new version, the Curvemeister Wizard may be all that many users will need. Step by step, it guides you through the process of selecting the color model you want to work in, specifying shadow (black) point, highlight (white) point, and any neutral gray mid-tone points in the image as well as giving you a slider to adjust the overall image brightness. As a quick and easy way to adjust curves without even realizing you are doing so, this can work wonders.
After the Wizard ends, you can click on "Finish" to apply the changes to the image and return to Photoshop, or click on "Close" to continue tweaking things in Curvemeister by hand.
Points, Marks and Samples
If you click on "Close" or choose not to use the wizard at all, there are a few concepts you will need to understand in order manually edit curves.
A "Point" is the term used for the traditional moveable adjustment dots on the line that is the actual curve. If you grab hold of a Point with your mouse, you can drag it around the grid to turn the initial straight diagonal line into an actual curve. Curvemeister lets you create Points either by clicking directly on the curve itself, or if you hold down the Control key while clicking on the image itself, a point will be created on the curve for each constituent channel (but not the master composite channel). Points can have various properties as we will see shortly.
By Shift-clicking on the image you can instead create a "Mark" which will appear as a small triangle along the curve for each color channel but is not locked in place. As the curve is adjusted, it will ride around with the curve rather than holding the curve in place as a Point does. Marks don't actually do anything in terms of the curve you are editing, but they can let you keep track of important colors more easily.
You can also Alt-click on the image to create an eyedropper Sample that will allow you to track what happens to the color at the point you clicked. Each Sample will create a small window at the point of interest showing information about the color before and after the curve affects it. This information can be shown in various ways as I'll get into in a bit. You can also create a Mark for a given Sample point via the Sample's right-click context menu.
The program is not always consistent in what it calls each of these and sometimes refers to Points as "pinned points" and Samples as "sample points." Regardless of what each is called though, the easiest way to get the hang of what they do is simply to open an image you are familiar with and have some fun.
Shadow, Highlight and Neutral Points
Even the traditional shadow, highlight and neutral points have been enhanced by the Curvemeister touch. If you right-mouse click on an image, the resulting pop-up menu will let you can create any of the three, and all have well thought out behaviors.
In the normal Photoshop curves dialog, I've never really been a fan of the black and white-point eyedroppers since there is no good way to know where best to click them. If you click in the wrong place, you will clip detail and will have to guess again where best to click for each. Curvemeister nicely solves this by leaving a marker on the image where you clicked and allowing you to drag it around to see what change this has. If you hold down the Alt key while dragging the point, the image will turn into a threshold display to guide you as you drag.
For instance, if you click in the wrong place for the shadow (black) point, your image will go dark, with everything darker than the point you clicked on turning to black. Rather than panicking though, simply hold down the Alt key and drag. The mouse pointer will appear to be on the boundary line between a portion of the image that is black (those areas that are still yet darker than where you currently have the shadow point) and the rest that will show as white (the part that is brighter than where you are clicking). If you keep dragging into the dark area, it will contract around your mouse pointer until almost the entire image is white except where you have now relocated the shadow point. Let go of both the Alt key and the mouse and you will have successfully placed the shadow point in the darkest part of the image. The same thing works in reverse at the highlight end. Once you drag it with the Alt key depressed until the image is basically all black except where the point is, you can let go and the highlight will be correctly placed.
Neutral points work to equalize the color in each channel so the image at that point appears neutral. Curvemeister will show neutral points on the curve for each color channel, but they will be locked together between channels. You can move them up or down to brighten or darken the image, but they will remain locked together so the color doesn't shift.
Sample Windows and the Hue Clock
When you create a new sample point, Curvemeister will open a small window over the image at that point. As mentioned, this window can contain a wealth of information as determined by the right-click context menu for each sample. As would be expected, they can include a numeric display of the color at that point, both before and after the curve has been applied. A number of other value display options are available as well.
Additionally, it can include one of the most ingenious features introduced with the new version: the Hue Clock. This is a way of representing color in a fashion similar to the face of a clock. Instead of numbers, the Hue Clock has the letters r, y, g, c, b and m for red, yellow, green, cyan, blue and magenta around its circumference. The clock hand will point to the color (hue) at that point, and the length of the hand is the saturation. The idea is to turn the complicated idea of defining color into something most people are more visually familiar with. Skin tone comes out at about 12:30. Green plants clock in at about 2:30. This idea won't appeal to everyone, but it is optional so use it if you find it helpful and turn it off if you don't.
The background color for the Sample window is the averaged color over the size of the sample (also user selectable). This can be either the color before or after the curve has been applied, or still yet other options as you wish.
The top right corner of the main Curvemeister window features an info palette for the color underneath the mouse cursor that can also display a Hue Clock for that color if you wish. There's also an included version of the Hue Clock as a standalone program you can use even without firing up Photoshop. It responds to the color at the mouse pointer in whatever program happens to be underneath it.
The Pin Palette and Pin Libraries
All Curves implementations let you target neutral hues to eliminate color casts, but Curvemeister takes this a huge step further by letting you target most any color you want via the concept of "pins." Yes, I know: Curvemeister uses the word "pin" for something else already, but stick with me on this one as it is worth it. On the side of the main Curvemeister image window is the new Pin Palette, filled with colored markers that look like map push-pins. Drag one out onto your image and the curve will automatically be adjusted to make the color at that point match the pin color. Curvemeister comes with a number of pre-defined Pin Libraries for common colors including skin tones, a few objects in nature, the standard Gretag-Macbeth Color Checker and Crayola crayons. Pin Library files are simple text documents that can easily be created with a text editor, or Curvemeister will let you create new Pins from Sample points.
CurveAlert and CurveGuard
In Curves, slope equals contrast, and a negative slope can be a bad thing since all colors become inverted in a somewhat psychedelic fashion. To help alert users to this problem, Curvemeister has a feature called CurveAlert that will turn the Curve line red if it trends downward at any point along its length.
There is also an optional feature called CurveGuard that will go a step further by actually preventing you from creating an inverted curve. If you try to pull a curve downward to create a negative slope, it will stop at the horizontal, stopping you from dragging it any further down.
Copy and Paste, Load and Save
Curvemeister lets you copy the curve for any channel to any other channel via the clipboard. But it goes a step further by letting you paste a copied curve as text into Notepad or text editor. The exact values for each point on each channel will be listed.
You can also load and save curves from Curvemeister as standard Photoshop .ACV Curve files.
One of the very few things Curvemeister can't do is work its magic on an Adjustment Layer. But the fact that you can save a Curvemeister curve as a regular .ACV file means you can do almost the same thing. Curvemeister provides excellent tools for defining curves, so once you have what you want, save it as an .ACV file and exit back to Photoshop without actually applying the curve. If you forget and the curve is applied, just go back one step in the History Palette to undo it. Either way, you can then create a new Curves Adjustment Layer and Load your saved Curvemeister curve into it via its context menu. A very cool trick indeed. If you later re-edit that Adjustment Layer, it won't re-open Curvemeister, but the curve is editable in the regular Photoshop Curves dialog.
The Help file that comes with Curvemeister does a fairly good job of explaining the many features of the program, including many details I have only touched on here or omitted altogether due to lack of space. It can also be well worth a read as a tutorial on Curves and image optimization in general since it features sections on workflow and other topics beyond basic program usage. The Curvemeister.com website has even more information and several other free downloads of possible interest.
Curves are a very useful tool for getting the most out of your images, but they can also be one of the hardest to get the hang of. Curvemeister goes a long way towards overcoming that difficulty. Even experienced Curves users will likely find a number of timesaving features in Curvemeister.
The current version is priced at $79.95, or $39.90 for users of earlier versions. For what the program includes, this is not unreasonable, but may seem a bit steep if your budget runs more to Elements than it does to the full version of Photoshop. Other than that, I would highly recommend Curvemeister.